Love and Death have been inextricably linked for me since before I can remember. As the first born child of an adopted father, I was the first blood relative that he had ever known. Not surprisingly, this fact added to the love bond of a father for his baby daughter. But before I was old enough to process the special nature of that bond, my father had his first bout with what was to be a serious chronic illness that would rear its ugly and life threatening head every few years. Each episode was a reminder that death and loss of a loved one was an ever present possibility. The threat of losing my father was not a well kept secret, so talk about death was a part of life for as long as I can remember.
It has always been easy for me to talk about what for others is so scary or unpleasant that it is virtually off limits. As time went on, there were more reminders that death was a fact of life. A dim memory exists of my great grandmother who must have been the first person whose death I was vaguely aware of. She was nearly 100 and lived with my grandparents who we saw weekly. In the last years of her life she exhibited a tremor that made the other children afraid to go near her, but not me. I am glad for this, because now I know the joy that a young child can bring to an elder just by being present. I recall nothing of her dying though I know she died at home as most others did back then.
As a teenager, a series of tragedies left no doubt that death wasn’t reserved for the old. The fact of death was not to be denied nor its aftermath of grief. The power of death to change lives suddenly and radically did not go unnoticed as I began to fear those losses in my own little life. I remember, at around six years old, watching a movie about a child who had been orphaned (probably Shirley Temple) and realizing that it could happen to me. I cried and cried and I never forgot that awful feeling when the time came to raise my own children.
While raising my two boys, I was committed to being completely honest with them in (almost) all things. Yes, we did the Santa Claus, Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy thing but I was pretty conflicted about it. Whether this approach was wrong or right…you will have to ask the boys now men. One lie that I absolutely could not tell them was, “don’t worry… I’ll always be here.” My only cousins lost their mom suddenly when they were very young and I saw the complete upheaval that ensued as their estranged father took them back and their lives continued without the hands-on love they had been used to. My own attempt to decrease the damage that any such loss could bring to my children took the form of a counting game that my younger son can still remember. On each of his little fingers we would count all the people in the world who loved him. Gratefully we ran out of fingers.
Of course we didn’t dwell on it, but the lesson of death’s fact in the lives of my children was not hidden. It was an easy thing to talk about and we even learned to treat the topic with humor. On our book shelf was a copy of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies – an alphabet book using children’s names for each letter and the manner of their death, e.g., ” G is for George smothered under a rug. H is for Hector done in by a thug.” We laughed and laughed, but others didn’t really see the humor or think it appropriate for children. Oh well.
My purpose this year has been to explain my commitment to the concept of allowing natural death. I hope that today’s post begins to explain some of my own experiences with love and death and why this is work that will not let me go.